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Planning an Alaska cruise or cruisetour this year? Here's a word of advice. Book it now or you may be out of luck. If that sounds like something the cruise operators say every year, be assured -- it has never been more valid than in 2005. As a rule of thumb, cruise lines hope to have their Alaska product -- both cruise and cruisetour -- at least half-sold during the heavy booking season between, say, September and mid-December of the previous year. And although -- for perfectly understandable competitive reasons -- the lines are reluctant to speak openly about their results this early, sources privately indicate that some of the biggest of them have accomplished that -- and more. Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean, the big three in Alaska, fall into that category from all accounts. It's a safe bet, then, that many others do, too. This, mind you, despite the fact that the industry is offering about 6% more berths this year than last.

Obviously, with so much of the inventory already sold and proportionately that much less still available from January on -- when reservations pick up again after the holiday season lull -- the opportunity for would-be travelers to find prime staterooms and ideal dates, is diminished. And discounts are likely to be at a minimum. The word here, we stress again, is make your plans now.

The now virtually-assured increase in the number of cruise and cruisetour participants in Alaska this summer may have a negative "ripple" effect on the ability of late bookers and independent travelers to get the exact itineraries that they want. The cruise lines are the prime movers of people to the state and, as a consequence, they get first dibs on the components that go into making up an Alaska vacation. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that they effectively control - or at least dominate - the rooms inventory at many hotels and lodges, motor coaches, and national and state park entrances. That makes it very difficult for small, independent tour packagers to offer as extensive and array of products as they would like. They simply cannot get the pieces the need to create tour packages.

One cruise line executive foresees a day when visitors to the Denali Corridor, overnighting in small communities such as Denali and Talkeetna, which are just outside the Denali National Park boundary, will be unable to get into the park proper. Why? Because early-booking cruisetour passengers will have snapped up all the available seats on the limited number of buses that are permitted to enter the environmentally-sensitive home of mighty Mount McKinley. It may well be, as he anticipates, that the day will come when "you snooze...you lose."

All of the above is the reason that Alaska-bound vacationers should move quickly to lock up their places on their favorite ships and on their preferred land packages. The word from the 49th State is don't delay. Book today.

The communities of Alaska, large and small, and the providers of visitor services throughout the state, not to mention the major U.S. and British Columbia ports are girding for a banner year.

There were few major "bricks and mortar" projects announced in the latter part of 2004 but some of the cruiselines did disclose innovations in their onboard facilities. Princess Cruises, for instance, in December unveiled a fleet-wide program that would allow passengers to keep in touch with shore by plugging their personal lap tops into an increased number of ports in various public areas of their 14 ships, including those in Alaska. (Previously, it was possible to use e-mail or surf the Internet only from the company's Internet Cafes and using Princess' equipment.) The new service costs 35¢ a minute.

Princess also announced late in the year the industry's first interactive eBrochures (www.princess.com/downloads/ebrochures.html) designed to make vacation planning easier. The service offers easy navigation of the site with quick links to Princess ships' deck plans, itineraries, and more, and allows prospective passengers to print out only those pages that they need, rather than the entire brochure, as was the case previously.

At the same time, Royal Caribbean International and its sister company, Celebrity Cruises, announced a deal with Wireless Maritime Services, which will allow passengers to call, or receive calls on their own cell phones while at sea. Anybody who has ever tried to make a cell call from a ship in Alaskan waters will appreciate what a boon that will be.

Carnival Cruise Lines, a Princess affiliate in the Carnival Corp. family, moved to add a little romance to the cruise experience, extending its renewal-of-marriage-vows package to every ship in the fleet, including the Carnival Spirit, operating in Alaska this year. In the standard package, costing $385, the captain will perform the ceremony in the ship's wedding chapel or in a public lounge. The couple involved will get a certificate attesting to their renewal of vows, a two-tier wedding cake, a champagne toast and two keepsake champagne flutes. A deluxe package (from $785) also includes canapés, an open bar for guests for an hour, and floral arrangements.

Information about the new service is available by calling the line's Bon Voyage Department at 800/933-4968 or through the company's website at www.carnival.com.

Noting the growth in interest in the product, Valdez-based Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Tour announced plans for a new day boat to enter service in May. In October 2004, work began on construction of the 149-passenger double-hulled aluminum catamaran in a Bellingham, Wash., shipyard. It will supplement Stephens' Prince William Sound Glacier Tours programs that run daily throughout the summer season.

Hotel construction and renovation activity has been - not surprisingly - more marked in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city by far, than in any other. Anchorage is visited by most Gulf of Alaska cruisers and all Denali Corridor riders at the beginning or end of their voyages. But even there, the changes are relatively slight. Whereas, in the last two years, 700 new rooms came on stream, in 2005, just 145 rooms will do so. They will comprise the Embassy Suites, a Hilton brand, at a site on Benson Boulevard. Construction work began in the fall and the hotel is slated to open before the end of this summer.

The addition of an Embassy Suites property, though, is unlikely to exert any downward pressure on room prices in the city, according to an Anchorage Convention Bureau spokesman.

"This is a relatively small hotel," he noted, "and its impact will be minimal. In fact, with the stronger visitor intake we anticipate in 2005, it probably won't make a ripple."

Also in Anchorage, the Holiday Inn became a Howard Johnson Plaza in October, 2004 and the long-established Samovar Inn and Kobuk Hotel got facelifts and also were rebranded late in the year. The Samovar became a member of the Rodeway Inns system and the Kobuk joined Red Roof Inns.

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